Thursday, 9 June 2011

Too dark?

Imagine a mother choosing a book as a present for her 13-year-old daughter. The shelves in front of her are full of gloom and misery, graphic descriptions of suffering, dystopian visions of violence and death.
So cast down is she, that not only does she fail to buy a book, but also pours her heart out to her friend, who happens to be a children's book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. Her friend doesn't point her in the direction of writers such as Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison or Sarah Dessen. Instead she writes this article, in which she asks whether YA literature has become too dark.
'Teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.' wrote Meghan Cox Gurden.
The angry response was articulate and immediate. Under the hashtag #yasaves, people tweeted about how they'd been helped by Young Adult fiction. Writers such as Maureen Johnson dissected  and dismissed Ms Gurden's arguments here, accusing her of under-estimating teenage readers' ability to process stories, wishing to ban darker themes.'Those books you so glibly dismiss...that's fine. But that may be a book that changes or even saves someone's life.'
Now, as a writer, I'm mostly on Maureen Johnson's side.I don't believe that books for teenagers should be censored or sanitised; bad things happen to teenagers and should be part of their books. If one looks at their entire cultural experience - films and television included - then why should books be tame in comparison?
I do believe that teens might be helped by reading about people with problems, in particular they might have more ideas about how to help a friend who has problems. Books promote empathy and understanding. Reading is a completely safe experience -  nothing could be safer -  and a reader is free to stop reading if they find something distressing.
However. This is all to do with the writer's experience, and the reader's. What about the gatekeepers..the editors, librarians, teachers and parents? What is their role? Should they stand back and allow writers complete freedom? Or are there roles to play in guidance, protection, setting boundaries? This, it seems to me, is the question that Meghan Cox Gurden is asking, and she goes about it in a more subtle and nuanced way than her critics allow.
On Facebook recently I read a conversation about rude words in a book for ten year olds. Could the writer get away with 'crap' and 'shit'? Surely it was unrealistic and old-fashioned to expect that modern youngsters would react to a big shock with anything softer?
In an instant, my anti-censorship writer's hat came off and my mother-of-a primary-age-kid-hat came on. I do not want my son coming home from school with books full of swearing, thank you very much. That can wait until he is at secondary school. I battle at home to teach him that some words are appropriate and some are not, I expect those writing for his age group to back me up. If not...fine...I'm not buying their books.
Secondary school is different. By that age you know your child will hear and probably use swearwords all the time -  in the playground. They won't hear them (one hopes) in the classroom. When I was writing When I Was Joe, I knew Ty would swear a lot, and I wondered how I could accurately reproduce his inner voice. In the end, I decided to imagine that he was telling his story to an adult he respected. The most taboo words would only slip through at times of great stress.
Some will be helped by graphic descriptions of  -  say -  self harm. Others might be tempted to give it a go. Others -  the majority, I imagine -  will find it curiously interesting and even exciting to find out about something that is mostly secret. (This voyeurism is something I touch on in When I Was Joe). That's normal, I imagine. Self harm is part of life, and all too often part of teenage life. I've heard  about people who haven't been able to read beyond this section of my book. I've even heard of someone who gave self-harming a go after reading it. I hope that neither reaction is widespread.
I completely accept that for some vulnerable teenagers, self-harming is probably not a great thing to read about. It may trigger an existing or dormant problem, it may be very upsetting, it may stir old memories. Those teens may encounter my book and others like it, and decide not to read it. Or they may be sensitively guided away by parents, librarians and teachers.That's what the gate-keepers are there for...not banning or censoring.
I'm less worried by graphic descriptions and profanity in YA than Meghan Cox Gurden. There are other things that worry me though, which she doesn't mention. I can't bear books which present death and an afterlife almost as lifestyle options, blurring the distinction between life and death with a range of cool 'undead' options. I don't like books which allow warnings about sex to obscure the fact that grls can enjoy a good sex and healthy sex life, which is not defined by men. Violence is a part of our lives -  but how far should a writer go before that violence is excessive and gratuitous?
As a writer, I tackle these things in my books. As a mother, I try and read the books my children read and am prepared to discuss them. As both I am grateful for the help I recive from the 'gatekeepers' in discussing where lines  -  if any -  should be drawn.
I'm also not so keen on traditional 'issue' books, in which one person has one problem, it is described and dissected, and eventually eliminated with the help of a wise counsellor. I fear that may serve to make kids feel as though most people are normal and only a few are 'suffering', and that help can only come from external and adult sources. My books try and reflect the muddle of 'issues' which make up life - and the diverse ways in which help may or may not arrive. Most of us are pretty resilient, and few meet the right cousellor at the right time.
Life as a teenager can be wonderful. It can also be tough beyond belief. Sometimes it's like a light, frothy romance, at other times the grittiest, gloomiest book cannot capture the sheer confusing screwed-up mess that teens can fall into. As a writer, I hope my books will help readers understand themselves, the world about them, and other people. As a mother buying a present for a daughter -  well, sometimes I'd turn away from those dark, dystopian shelves.
The book I'm writing at the moment contains some scenes of drug-taking. My reading group were unsure about those scenes. Could they give this book to their children? Would they be seen as endorsing drugs? I'm not going to censor myself in response to their worries. But nor do I think they are necessarily wrong. I think I tend to write books which teens will find for themselves, rather than be given to them by a parent.
I met a publicist for Walker Books at the Hay festival last week and she's just sent me two very different books -  Michelle Gayle's Pride and Premiership and Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd's A Monster Calls. One is light and funny and about the world of footballers' girlfriends. The other is a powerful, compelling modern-day fable about cancer, fear and loss. I'm delighted with both -  thank you so much, Ruth - and I look forward to reading them. And I know exactly which one my daughter needs this particular week.


  1. Great post, Keren. As writers we do have a responsibility and I'm glad you, like me have both a writer hat and a mother hat - it's balancing both without being hypocritical that's difficult - and also essential.
    It would terrify me if I knew teens were trying out the scary things depicted in my books - you must have felt terrible when you heard that someone had self-harmed after reading 'When I Was Joe' and it's brave of you to admit to this information.

  2. Really interesting post, like always you have given me food for thought.

  3. Thank you for this post, which is fascinating. I just finished When I Was Joe (loved it!) and wasn't worried about any of the content, as it all felt very real and could alert kids to the possible consequences of their actions. But I'm not a mother, so it can be hard for me to imagine what people might or might not have problems with - and it's worth remembering that although I'm writing for 15yr olds and above, when I was 10-12, I would have picked up a book for older kids easily - anything in the 'Kids' section of the bookshop is fair game to some quite young children, and these issues are important.

  4. Thank you for this level-headed post. I think I was one of the ones involved in the 10 year olds and swearing discussion. My current WIP has led to some thoughts about this issue and whilst I'm not in favour of censorship, I am aware of responsibility.

  5. @Bryony. Funnily enough I didn't feel so terrible about the self-harming thing. I'm satisfied that I've tackled the subject responsibly, and I tend to think that these things can happen whatever the trigger might be - if it's not my book, it'll be something else. Hopefully kids will get the idea from the book that this is not a great way to go about solving one's problems.

  6. I think one of the most interesting points you make is about parents reading the books their teenagers are reading and being able to discuss these issues. It is a great way of opening up a dialogue about sensitive issues
    When my older daughter was about 15 she read Aidan Chambers'"This is all" in which a girl of 15 decides to have sex with her boyfriend. Beautifully written etc but as my daughter was the same age and had a boyfriend I have to confess I was nervous about her reading it. But because I read it too, we were able to talk about Cordelia's situation rather than my daughters but address the same issue. I do have an issue with books like Gossip Girl which I feel present things like drug use and promiscuity as aspirational, but not with well written books using these things to help young people explore them in safety.
    Thanks for the article Keren, a good read as always.

  7. Good post! Personally, I think there is just as much dark books as there are light and funny ones. I think it depends on the book, and the way it is written. Most stories portray the situation and encourage you not to do the wrong thing. For example, when Clare harmed herself it showed her almost being killed. Also, other stories can empathise with the reader and it can make them feel not alone. In a way, I think all kinds of books can help teenagers with a certain problem and get them through the rough time.
    Thanks for the great post, Keren!

  8. I have a real soft spot for a good issue novel, I must admit, and they've come on a long way since the kind of 'wise counsellor solves kid's problem' format you describe - all the way from The Best Little Girl in the World to Wintergirls. The genre has become more credible, and in the process darker, as 'counsellor solves all problems' is very seldom the course of anyone's life. So I do see the dark tone that the WSJ article condemns as a largely positive thing.

  9. Great post. I thought your handling of self-harm was excellent. Interestingly, I'd just been to a training session on self-harm at work (I teach in a college) when I read When I Was Joe, and I wished I'd read it first so I could have recommended it to the others in the session.

    I don't think books can be (or should be) all sweetness and light; they are representative of the full range of human experience, and not all of it is 'nice'. And, of course, different readers want and need different things.

  10. I too think that fiction has to reflect real life as no-one will be bothered with a book that is not authentic. However, my experience as a reader has been that when the description of e.g bodily functions is too graphic and the swearing too raw, I don't enjoy the book. A book is a valuable way of seeing into situations without having to actually experience it. As we are already opting to be one step removed, I think it is kinder on the reader to tone down the language and depravity to appeal to, and be suitable for, a wider audience.

  11. Thanks for your thoughtful and impassioned post, Keren. I recently blogged about an author's responsibility and I do feel that we have to go through due diligence here, to be sure that what we write and the themes we cover are true to ourselves, and respectful of our audience. These responsibilities vary widely by the age of readers - I would argue that writing fake and fluffy fiction at YA level is just as disrespectful as trying to cram sex and violence into an 7-9 book.


  12. Fabulous post Keren. I wish I was half as articulate as you.
    I try to encourage my girls to read a variety of things and explain to them if I fell they are not ready to read a certain book.